The Golf TDI is the ultimate highway car for efficiency, and one of the best for curvy drives. If you are a driver's driver, the Golf must be one of your top choices. However for passengers, it is the European version of comfortable: from a North American point of view my Golf has serious ergonomics issues on long trips, too-hard seats, simply bad storage and interior design, and serious lighting deficiencies. An interior re-design is called for but the car wins hands-down for the combination of driving feel, safety, fuel efficiency (mid to high 40s mpg combined), and flexibility.
I'm averaging in the mid to upper 40 mpg (around 4.9 l/100 km) range combined, with about 70% of my driving on the highway. Quite satisfied.
Sporty, capable, holds together well on the track (up to 200 kph), and more usefully, is nearly perfect in the snow (with snow tires). Have not tried handling without stability control except in a few rare cases.
Safety & braking
This is my perception, haven't had a crash. I like the ratings a lot, and compared to the Volvo I think I'm in acceptable-risk level. I'd like the Volvo improved headlight system is the main lust I feel in this area.
Going at 200 kph / 130 mph, I still had to turn the radio down from 5 to 3 to really hear the engine noise.
Within the confines of diesel (the narrow-powerband deal), I feel my baby go boom reliably - it can dig out of anything I've thrown at it so far, including mud and snow but also passing at any speed. I can't wait for the GTD to come out in 2015 so I can be even more unscientifically pleased. I might consider trying the DSG auto-shifting model if there were a way to have one for a month to see how I like it.
This is a car made by people who will tell you how to drive and what to enjoy inside. While the Golf TDI is a true joy to drive, and relatively very safe, it's merely okay to ride in, and not for long distances. This is because the interior design is not made for you and me, but for the designers in Wolfsburg. Who love to drive baby. Drive, not ride.
To begin, the console has no decent flat / wide storage anywhere. If you are looking to store a set of CDs, a USB cable, change for tolls (change for tolls!!), your wallet, a charger kit, let alone kid equipment like bottles or extra diapers in the back...the Golf fails badly. The glove box is way too small - it will fit about a one-liter bottle of water in total, though it does have a cute vent to keep the bottle cool (not cold though - vent aperture is too small) _if_ you're running the air conditioning. I live in Canada, so...not much. In my glove box I keep a small bottle of eyeglass cleaner, a random CD on the non-flat surface, a tire gauge, eye drops...and there's no space really after that. I could leave the owners manual at home and use the little shelf instead I guess for up to five CDs...but why do I have to decide? There is door storage but it's a simple bin without organizers.
Secondly, the seats are sporty and very not-soft for long drives. My 30-year old girlfriend and 80 year-old dad both actually bring a pillow to sit on when we're going anywhere further than an hour away. That's sad frankly.
Thirdly, the cup holders are just in the wrong position, which is silly. One is in the door (cool) but low (not cool), and another is behind the shifter, meaning you have to feel for it including that your travel-mug-lid is open, unless you want to look away from the road.
I know I know Hans, we're not supposed to drink coffee while we're driving. Strange thing though: I'm the customer here and I'm not like you.
Fourth the in-console iPhone-only phone connection, only comes to your elbow. Therefore if you want to choose a podcast or have your passenger type something etc while the phone is plugged in, you will be turning sideways and looking down around behind your elbows to confer. If you want to use your phone for nav, you can't have it plugged in and look at it.
Fifth the center console storage (where the phone plug is) is not storage, in fact it's not anything: it's a slot about three cm wide. Huh? I guess I could fit a small elegant hardcover book in there if it matches the Golf look?
Finally, the interior is designed for a taller person it seems. I'm 5'8" and my elbow doesn't sit on the center armrest. My left arm doesn't comfortably rest anywhere. My right knee rubs against the center console on long drives too. All silly problems, but problems I didn't have in the Toyotas I've driven.
Controls and instruments
Most importantly, the lighting balance at night is out of wack - the big media screen never goes dark if the radio is on, and is way too bright at night. As in, we put a hankercheif over it while driving at night to block the glare. The red controls lamp - to show you where your shifter and dash instruments are - would be nice if it were not drowned out by the screen, or if the balance were somehow adjustable. In addtion the dash-panel rheostat - to turn down the brightness on the instrument cluster shining directly in to your face - does not go to zero or close to zero. While the hooded design over the speedometer / tachometer keeps light from bouncing off the windshield , it's still too bright for my taste. For the media screen, I paid top dollar for a super-efficient hot hatch and it comes with a black and white screen - huh? I accept that there's no way VW could keep up with the latest in-car electronics, so I have suggested they offer a mod with an iPad / Galaxy mini in place of the media center, with each new car, and let me handle it all the apps and updating if I want. It would be much closer to the Tesla I lust after. Finally, in view of the mediocre media center, the lack of a phone mount in particular is galling - perhaps they feel you shall use their GPS or nothing, but then the screen for their nav system is actually too low on the dash to follow easily while driving. About 70% of people I know have a phone mounted for GPS purposes near or within their sightline to the road ahead anyway - I suppose VW doesn't want to mess up their lovely spare interior aesthetics or encourage us not to buy the extra navigation package. My solution? A five-dollar vent-mounted phone holder which looks ugly AND doesn't hold the phone adequately. This is a major VW failing in my book, especially in view of all the empty dashboard they have in front of you.
At the upper trim levels, this is a premium car in general and very well put together. However SOME dealers do not understand or match that position or attitude, and that can be disappointing. Be careful and consider developing a good mechanic relationship elsewhere or at least asking little throwaway questions to see if your sales / mechanic guy really are detail-focused folks or VW-enthusiasts. For me, I got annoyed that my local dealer missed stuff and didn't seem too concerned, while charging me $200 for something unexpected.
Overall I'm thrilled with the car but not with the premium price or dealer actions at the moment. I'm the type who takes my car as a second spouse, so I go to a dealer I like, out of the city.
These are generally good practices and nothing to do with the VW itself.
Materials & workmanship
While there are major design issues with the interior storage systems, the actual surfaces, materials and workmanship are impeccable. Kudos to VW Wolfsburg's technicians and factory folks, I could not be happier about the quality of the assembly, stitching, finishes, etc. For this work alone it feels inside like a much higher-level car than it is designed to.
Capacity is alright but not stellar for a hatch - until you fold the rear seats down. Still, what this means is that you will be rationalizing space a bit. I keep an emergency kit which includes a real winter parka and snowshoes - for the remote chance of a remote breakdown - and the kit takes most of the cargo space. On a long road trip, where I have suitcases etc - a system to block the back seat from view and thereby increase secure storage space, would be very welcome. Still, when the seats are folded down I have carried an entire bed frame with luggage from Chicago to Montreal - outstanding for the hatch category.
The TDI Golf is an excellent choice for a young family which prizes efficiency. It's also a great choice for me, 40 and single, and other folks who like to really drive. The Golf TDI combines a range of great qualities such as good hatchback-style storage, visibility, safety, acceleration, ride comfort, etc to make the car a consideration for almost everyone. Choosing the GTI version will give you an even sportier gas-driven / high-horsepower ride, and moving downmarket to the 2.5L gas version will trade you a lot of driving power for a few shekels.
Buying the TDI new or nearly new and driving it until the end of its life - which for a diesel could be many years - makes good financial sense as the car is so efficient for highway trips.
Finally, while there are major design issues with the interior storage systems, the actual surfaces, materials and workmanship are impeccable. Reliability seems average to good with the post-2010 Golfs and so we have to conclude - what all reviews are really about anyway - that I made a pretty good choice in buying this car, and you would too.